Last week we asked the question, “what strategy will work for bringing about reconciling peaceful relationship in the diverse nation that is South Africa?”. We then looked at secularism and found it somewhat wanting for the task. Today I would like to suggest strategy for dealing with the divisiveness of religion that will work. That strategy is to look at the things about the Christian gospel that are unique to Christianity, because they are the very things that will empower people to be agents of reconciliation and peace in the world.
I understand that this sounds counter-intuitive. After all most people will say that we shouldn’t stress what’s different about our religion, but rather emphasize what we have in common. Of course Christianity has a lot in common with other religions, but those are not the features that will drastically turn you into an agent for reconciliation in the world. There are at least three things that are unique and distinct about Christianity compared to other religions. I want to explain how when you take them into your heart and understand what they really mean it will turn you into an agent of peace. I will also argue that unless your religious impulses, confesses these unique distinctives of Christianity, your spiritual impulse might enslave you or turn you to hate other people.
The Method of Salvation
The first thing that’s unique about Christianity is the method of grace. In all other religions, we are told, “if you want to be saved, you have to perform the truth” which means you have to love God, you have to love other people, you have to love your family, your neighbour etc, and if God sees you loving, then God will bless you and save you. That’s not what the gospel says at all! Rather the gospel says, “this is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”. God comes and sacrificially pours himself out and suffers for the people who don’t love him, who aren’t good, who aren’t virtuous, and who don’t love one another. Jesus is not mainly a teacher who comes to tell us how we should live, so that by living in that way we might be saved. Jesus is a saviour, who lives the life we should have lived and dies the death we should have died in our place, and pays the penalty for sins, so none loving, and none virtuous, none performers of the truth can be saved by sweeping grace.
So the gospel says, “You are not saved by your performance”, but in religion you are saved by your performance and that’s what creates the slippery slope. If you believe you are saved because you are performing the truth, you have got to be superior to other people; you have got to look down on other people. It creates the slippery slope of self-righteousness and superiority, and that’s what leads to oppression.
But secularism isn’t much help here either. Have you ever noticed that secularists are every bit as self righteous as moralists. They say, “Oh I’m the enlightened person, you are the primitive religious person. You are the reason for the problems in the world.” Of course the religious people are looking at the secularists and saying, “You dirty secularists are the problem with the world. You are out there living godless wicked lives” Each group looks down their nose at the other, but the gospel is the only faith system I know that leads you to expect that people who don’t believe like you believe will be better than you. Because the gospel says you are not saved because you are wise, not because you are good or virtuous, or performing the truth, you are saved because Jesus preformed the truth, and you can’t get the salvation unless you admit that you are not any better than anyone else, that you are a sinner that needs grace. And so the gospel leads you to expect that people who don’t agree with you can easily be and usually are better people than you. Wiser, nicer, more disciplined, more self-controled, kinder, less likely to fly off the handle.
Every other system of thought leads you to believe that you will be better than the people who don’t believe the right things. However if you believe the gospel, you are likely to see other people who don’t believe the gospel as better than you. In other words the gospel humbles you before other people who don’t agree with you. I don’t know of any other system that would do that.
The Purpose of Salvation
The Bible goes on to say “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”. Now why put it like that? Why in the flesh? Why is that important? Well this is another area where Christianity and biblical religion is so different than others. Other religions see the purpose of religion to liberate you from the flesh, to escape the flesh. The physical world is the problem. Some religions say, “your problem is the physical world is an illusion, and you overcome it and are liberated from it through changes in consciousness” those are mostly eastern religions. Western religions tend to say, “The flesh is real, but it is bad and through morality or spiritual experience you can escape and go to heaven” but see all other religions say that the purpose of religion is to escape this nasty world and go to heaven where everything is fine.
But Christianity says that at the birth of Jesus, God received a body and at the resurrection of Jesus we see that the salvation of God is not to escape the flesh but to redeem it. Not to escape this world but to renew this physical world, this material world, get rid of the death, get rid of disease and poverty and injustice, and get rid of what’s broken about the world. No faith holds out a promise of eternal salvation for the world like the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ does.
Religions say, “this world doesn’t matter, this world is just going to hell, all that matters is heaven, the next life” see if that’s what you believe and most religions teach that, then all that really matter is that you convert more people to your tribe, and your tribe grows so you go to heaven. Who cares about the world, who cares about the problems of the world, it’s all going to hell anyway?!
But if the purpose of salvation is a new heavens and a new earth, a transformed world where death and poverty and disease and suffering are gone- then for you to be working with God, you are working to make this a good world. This is the kind of salvation that leads to Jeremiah 29, where God says to the children of Israel, “go into the pagan city of Babylon and seek its peace. Seeks its prosperity. All those wicked pagans make that city a great city for them to live in. Work for the shalom, work for the prosperity of the city”. So the gospel of salvation tells you to serve people who are different than you! Serve the city of Johannesburg, make it a great place for all the people of the city to live, because that’s what God is seeking to do, to bring a new heavens and new earth.
The Origin of Jesus.
The Bible says that this is how you determine if something is consistent with God, “every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. Notice that it said “Jesus Christ has come”… it didn’t say he was born. Now of course he was born too, but no one ever talks like that. To say he ‘is come’ means he was somewhere before he was in the world. This is an implicit claim which is made explicitly elsewhere in the gospel and epistles of John. That is whereas every other religion says its founder is a human being only, Christianity says in Jesus Christ, God comes into the world.
So Jesus is not just a human being, not just another prophet or teacher… He is God come in the flesh. Now you might think that this will lead to self-righteousness? If you believe that your founder is God, but the founders of other religions are just human, surley that’s going to lead to self-righteousness? Fascinatingly, one of the great paradoxes of history is the fact that when Christianity began to grow in the earliest days, the Greeks and the Romans had what looked like inclusive theology. Yet the simple fact of history is that Christianity created the most inclusive community in the history up to that time. The Greeks and the Romans didn’t mix rich and poor, Christians did. The Jews didn’t mix their races, Christians did. Why would such an exclusive belief that Jesus is God lead to the most inclusive, peace loving behaviour?
The answer is this: If Jesus isn’t just a great guy, but God, then in Jesus Christ ultimate reality has become visible. And when ultimate reality becomes visible you realize what you see? You see a man on the cross loving people who don’t love him. Ultimate reality for a Christian is a man on the cross loving people who don’t love him, forgiving people who were abusing him, sacrificially serving people who oppose him, and when the early Christians took that into the centre of their beings; if that’s ultimate reality how could they coerce, how could they trample, how could they be cruel to anyone?
If you take it into the centre of your life you can’t be either. See everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs, and Christianity has a set of exclusive beliefs, but which set of exclusive beliefs leads to the most inclusive kind of behaviour? I submit this. Take moralistic religion into the centre of your life and you will feel better than the secularist, take secularism into the centre of your life and you will feel superior to all those stupid religious people. Take the gospel into the centre of your life and you will be humbled before people who don’t believe what you believe, you will seek to serve.
Do you want this incredible force to be released into the world? I hope so. Here is how you do it, if you believe the gospel believe it more deeply than you ever have before, and if you don’t believe the gospel consider believing it, and become part of what South Africa and the world needs.